Binary Discipline and The Easy Road of Consequence

Originally posted on March 24, 2013 @ 4:34 AM

Binary Discipline and The Easy Road of Consequence

There are many dimensions to the fallibility of being human and many inbuilt psychological mechanisms that operate unconsciously, individually and socially. The idea of behaviourist theory that humans are machines is nonsense. In the face of the evidence, humans are much more than the sum of inputs and outputs. The implications of a holistic understanding of humans is essential to developing a balanced approach to risk and safety management.

The idea that any binary thinking helps mature leadership or learning in risk is also nonsense. The evidence shows that most relationships in human life are not black or white, human living is not binary but complex. Any consideration of the complex nature of humans and fallibility shows that the absolute of zero is nonsense. Any either/or thinking or goal setting that ignores competing goals is simplistic and disconnected from human reality. Zero goal setting, zero language and zero ideology is simplistic and therefore unrealistic and unsafe.

Recently, there have been a number of sackings in Australia made prominent in the media and social media that have demonstrated that some think that effective safety management is all about consequence. The thinking is, if one doesn’t set heavy consequences and heavy examples then, one is either weak or permissive. This binary way of thinking is unable to see beyond the simplistic black and white. Black and white (binary) mindset thinks as follows: one either believes in punishment or not, one either believes in zero or wants people to die, one either believes in the war or terror or you are a terrorist, one is either homosexual or homophobic. There are no shades of grey and no in-between, the world is so simple when everything is black and white.

When it comes to the development of safety and risk ownership, binary simplistic thinking is disconnected from reality. Nothing is more important than understanding human judgement and decision making and motivation. Training and education in understanding human judgement and decision making and motivation should precede all training in risk and safety management. Yet, it is strange that the study of motivation is nowhere to be found orthodox safety training.

The primary focus in leadership in dealing with humans when they make mistakes or errors should be to invest as much understanding and empathy into the situation as is possible. This doesn’t mean workers should not be disciplined nor that there should not be consequences but rather, maturity, relationship and empathy should temper the manner in which humans are disciplined.

Discipline and compliance are not objective actions and are always metered out by subjective humans, sometimes under the myth of some ‘objective’ policy. There is no absolute certainty with anything when it comes to humans, this is the very meaning of the word ‘risk’. Risk is about the effect of uncertainty on objectives. We do our best and try to minimise risk but there is no certainty, there is no perfectionism and no absolutes. The illogical mantra of ‘all accidents are preventable’ is nonsense in a human world and is simplistic ‘spin’ developed in hindsight.

Many in supervision and management in industrial-type industries, where people skills are low, are often appalling at discipline. There are many costly by-products to poor discipline that affect morale, productivity and generate industrial conflict. In such industries such as mining and construction the human and economic toll of poor discipline is extensive yet these industries under value the importance of human skills (sometimes called ‘soft’ skills) in management.

There is no great value in unthinking blind compliance. Blind compliance with rules can be dangerous, especially as context and work environment changes. Innovative, creative, thinking and imaginative workers are those who survive best in moments of turbulence and change, when the rules have not caught up with change. So I would rather put the emphasis on thinking workers rather than just ‘compliant’ workers.

Whilst compliance is valuable but so too is thinking, there must be a balance and our discipline system in our organisations should reflect such. There are some organisations in Australia who propose they have some psychological test that can assess who are risk takers in a group and weed them out of the system. This is more binary nonsense, just as absurd as the ideology of zero.

The problem with binary thinking and goal setting is that it ignores the complexity of what it is to be human. Goals cannot be set in an either/or way when it comes to considering humans, there are far too many competing goals. For example, if one makes a test to select out risk takers from a group (as these psychological diagnostic marketers propose) then one also selects out of the culture any positive approach to learning and innovation. There can be no learning and innovation without risk.

So, the best way to develop buy-in and safety ownership is to balance consequence with understanding, motivation and learning.

So here is the crazy counterintuitive outcome of binary consequence thinking. Workers are rarely impressed by arbitrary discipline and this either leads to workers telling managers what they want to hear or to under reporting. The emphasis on consequences as a means of developing safety, rather than developing safety, actually makes the workplace less safe.


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